It’s been about a decade since the release of The Last Winter, the last feature indie horror auteur Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) wrote and directed, but he certainly hasn’t been idle over those years.
He’s worked as a character actor, with roles in dozens of independent features and shorts; served as producer or executive producer on a similarly large number of projects; and directed short films, episodic TV, music videos and a feature he did not write (Beneath) for the Chiller cable channel. He also worked on the screenplay adaptation of the Spanish film The Orphanage for a planned American remake and was slated to direct it until a casting dispute led to his departure. And he made a mark in a different medium, partnering with Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) to create a terrific audio anthology series, Tales from Beyond the Pale, which he also contributes to as a producer, director, writer and actor.
Yep, Larry has been as crazy-busy as ever. Still, his loyal fans are eager for the next Fessenden film proper. (Beneath, a forgettable gun-for-hire assignment, doesn’t feel like it counts.)
Well, the wait is over. The new Fessenden film, Stray Bullets, is here.
But hold on…Stray Bullets isn’t a Larry Fessenden movie; it’s a Jack Fessenden movie. Jack is Larry’s son, who was all of 15 years old when he made this familiar but efficient, and fairly entertaining, crime thriller.
The plot is reheated, meat-and-potatoes genre stuff: a couple of kids stumble into the path of three criminals on the run and end up in the middle of a bloody battle between rivals. The teenagers are played by young Fessenden and Asa Spurlock, while the bad guys are portrayed by some actors with considerably longer résumés: James Le Gros (Drugstore Cowboy, Point Break, Certain Women), John Speredakos (I Sell the Dead, The Mind’s Eye), and proud papa Larry himself. The wildly underappreciated Kevin Corrigan (GoodFellas, Big Fan) plays the raging gunman pursuing the trio.
Along with this veteran cast—all alumni of various projects by the elder Fessenden—Jack Fessenden also had access to a fairly experienced crew through connections to his dad’s production company, Glass Eye Pix. Larry also served as cinematographer and mother Beck Underwood was the film’s production designer.
These are all advantages most new filmmakers don’t have. So, is Stray Bullets just a family vanity product? I don’t think so. While we can’t know how much impact Larry had as D.P. on the look of the film, his son seems to have a knack for compelling visual composition—something many pros working on mega-budget productions lack.
The movie makes excellent use of its widescreen dimensions and there are interesting visual touches throughout. The image of a dog manically whipping around a toy clenched in its mouth and the dramatic shot introducing Corrigan’s character stand out among several memorable details. There are a few directorial stumbles, including a groan-worthy use of “Ave Maria” during a climactic bloodbath, but many more moments of genuine stylistic finesse. And based on some film-savvy interviews the younger Fessenden has given, I really don’t think he’s trying to pass off his dad’s talents as his own.
While Jack Fessenden shows he’s already an assured image-maker, he’s got a ways to go as a screenwriter. The crooks here are broad genre archetypes, without the benefit of the kind of clever dialogue that can lift those roles above clichés. Le Gros seems ready to play the badass but never really gets to cut loose. Larry Fessenden is plenty colorful as the trio’s profusely bleeding leader and Speredakos does what he can as a sensitive crook with a stutter, but like Le Gros, they seem to be trying to force some personality onto underwritten parts. Only Corrigan comes close to seeming like an authentic menace.
The young heroes are simply bland, a quality reinforced by the rather flat performances of Jack Fessenden and Spurlock. (Though a sequence where they aimlessly fire paintball guns in a field does capture an amusingly honest glimpse of bored youth.)
Still, thin characters and rote plotting are defects common in the low-budget, B-movie action realm, and that’s the field in which Stray Dogs should be judged. It’s not grading the teenaged director on a curve to do so. Plenty of adult filmmakers are churning out crappy action pictures that don’t show a fraction of the care young Fessenden—who also edited the movie and composed the score—put into his feature debut. (Just watch Kickboxer: Vengeance if you want proof of that.)
As filmmaking technology has become infinitely more affordable and accessible in recent years, it’s natural that new artists are entering the field at much younger ages than in the past. We have certainly reached the era Francis Ford Coppola dreamt about in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse—where almost anyone can make a professional quality movie without compromise to the commercial industry and without going broke. Or, as Coppola’s famous quote from the documentary put it, “…suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her father's little camera-recorder.”
Stray Bullets certainly does not announce Jack Fessenden as a new Mozart of moviemaking. Far from it. But he’s also clearly not just some kid screwing around with a camera. Putting his pedigree aside, he makes the case that he is a director worth keeping an eye on.
Stray Bullets. Written, directed and edited by Jack Fessenden. Cinematography by Larry Fessenden. Starring James Le Gros, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden, Kevin Corrigan, Jack Fessenden and Asa Spurlock.
83 mins. No MPAA rating.
Opens Friday, February 10 at Facets Cinémathèque.